Oftentimes couples wonder why things escalate the way they do, why they end up in the conflicts they do. And oftentimes it’s some version of a lack of acknowledgment of one or the other’s experience. Someone gets hurt, they try to tell their partner looking for acknowledgement, their partner gets defensive, explains their intent, the other person doesn’t feel acknowledged so they get bigger, angrier, louder in their effort to be heard which just leaves the other person getting more defensive which leads to less acknowledgement and so the escalating spiral goes.
So how do you stop it? What does acknowledgment look like?
Sometimes I like to use this metaphor and then I’ll put it in context with a pretend couple. If you are dancing together and you step on your partners foot, it hurts. Of course you didn’t mean it. Your partner says ow, that hurt. A common response is, well I didn’t mean to hurt you, you put your foot where it wasn’t supposed to be (blame, defensiveness), so then the other person protests more that it hurts. What your partner needs is for you to say, oh, I see that I hurt you. Can you show me where? What can I do to soothe it? It’s not always relevant that you didn’t mean it (well, it would be if you did mean it!) but we’ll assume that typically no hurt is intended. It still hurts. It doesn’t really matter if it happened because your partner misstepped, or you misstepped, your partner is hurt and you can soothe that hurt by acknowledging it exists and finding out what they need for comfort and care to ease the hurt. There is no need to assign blame to anyone. To take it a step further, that may be a foot that your partner has broken in the past, so stepping on it may hurt even more than if she/he had never broken it. When our partner has a bigger reaction than what seems warranted, it’s likely there is a past wound lurking there.
So let’s imagine Casi and Joel. (A completely made up couple). Casi and Joel are sitting together at the breakfast table having a casual chat. Mid conversation, Joel’s phone rings, and without saying anything, he answers it and leaves the room. Casi feels hurt. They both have a full day and this was their time to connect, she was enjoying her time with him and was left wondering, what could have been more important in this moment than us talking. So when Joel returns, she says, why would you just cut off our conversation like that? He responds that it was an important work call that he had to take. She then says, but it could have waited or he could have at least said something before answering the phone. (Casi is getting more upset as she talks, Joel getting more defensive.) He responds, but I did come right back, I’m here now. What is the problem here? It was a quick phone call!
You can see how this can start to spiral as Casi doesn’t feel understood and Joel feels attacked and defensive. But what is really going on? Let’s further imagine that Casi has some trauma in her past of being neglected. Ignored and not cared for by her caretakers growing up? Might this momentary infraction hurt and trigger her more in this moment than if she never experienced that? Of course.
Let’s imagine a different conversation where they both approach this in a different way. The same event occurs. And when Joel returns, Casi rather than going on the offensive, shares vulnerably the feelings that came up for her. Something like, I was really enjoying our time together before we go our separate ways. It makes me feel connected to you. When the phone rang and you answered it without saying anything, it left me feeling like this time isn’t as important to you and that hurts. And Joel’s reply might sound something like, I am so sorry, you are right, I wasn’t thinking about that in the moment, I just saw it was work and answered without thinking. I can see how it made you feel that way. I love this time together.
How do you imagine that both might feel after that conversation? Casi might let her guard down because Joel has heard and understood her feelings, and she’s more likely to accept what happened for him in that moment. That is a moment of repair, and reconnection.
If this is difficult for you to do in your own relationship, and these seemingly small moments turn into big spirals, we are here to help. Contact us today.
Wishing you Love and Happiness,
Dana Vince and the Healing Hearts Counseling Team.